Niall Anderson goes the distance with Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice
Above is the last known picture of Thomas Pynchon, taken in the summer of 1965 in California. (Pynchon is the fingers in the doorway.) In the forty years that passed before the next public sighting of the man in New York, Pynchon published only three books: the psychedelic neo-noir The Crying of Lot 49; his epic fantasia of the second world war, Gravity’s Rainbow; and Vineland, a Reagan-inspired lament for the death of Leftist politics in America. In the general critical consensus, it was the second of these books that carried the weight of the Pynchon legend. Culturally omnivorous, impossibly well researched, crammed with bad puns and deviant lechery, Gravity’s Rainbow was Pynchon, if not always at his best, then certainly at his most Pynchonesque.
That judgement still feels about right, but the books Pynchon has published since the 1990s have tilted the critical axis somewhat. The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland were both set in California, and have been followed by books that pivot between the relative solidity of Pynchon’s native New York and the freer and more dangerous climes of the American west coast, where Pynchon seems to have spent most of his life. If Gravity’s Rainbow looked east, in a protracted wrestle with European modernism, most of the rest of his work looks west – to where the sun sets on the American experiment.
This progressive westward trend was cemented by Inherent Vice (2009), a likeable 70s-set Californian detective romp whose very likeability is a kind of trap. Welcome to the world of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a permanently stoned private investigator whose drug-assisted insights help him solve enough cases to pay the rent, but who seems chemically disinclined to ever see the bigger picture. When an old flame of his, Shasta Fay Hepworth, disappears, it takes all of Doc’s wherewithal – and some very strong drugs – to both investigate the case and pretend that he doesn’t know where it’s leading: to a recognition that he might win a few battles against evil, here and there, but that he’s long-since opted out of the war.
Most of what happens in Inherent Vice is nonsense. A Jewish businessman leads a neo-Nazi cartel. A whitebread racist cop is an aficionado of Japanese culture and food. The FBI funds a Black Power organisation. (Pynchon’s racial politics, always somewhat dubious, reach a new level of perversity here.) But just when the reader has decided that all of this is viciously unfunny whimsy, Pynchon pulls something from the historical record that makes you realise he knows it, too – that this is all part of the novel’s sadistic plan. What happens outside of the plot is more important than what happens within it. Doc Sportello’s obliviousness is ours. This is pretty starchy stuff for Pynchon. What saves the novel from being a complete fuck-you is its reliable inventiveness and its recognition that Doc at least knows what’s right, even if he never gets around to doing it.
Inherent Vice is full of cinematic references, some of them obvious (The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski), but some of them extremely recherché. Pynchon is clearly something of a film nut, but the accent of his work has always been on competing with cinema – or adapting its methods – rather than making something that could be filmed. With its single point of view, short time-scale, and relatively straightforward save-the-girl plot, Inherent Vice seemed like one of the few things in Pynchon’s oeuvre that could be transferred to cinema without losing its essence. And with a filmmaker of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambition at the helm, it seemed like Pynchon had found an adaptor who could live with his alternating complexity and juvenility.
Let it be said at the outset that when Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice clicks, it really clicks. With the novel’s leggy and capacious prose handed off to a narrator (Joanna Newsom) and limited to only vital bits of background information and colour, Anderson trusts to the images to carry his tale. There’s a classic Anderson set-piece early on: a montage of apparently disconnected images and scenes set to Can’s propulsive ‘Vitamin C’, which delivers you to the heart of the plot seemingly without effort. There’s also the breezy way Anderson deals with the fact that his hero (Joaquin Phoenix) is both naturally paranoid and usually stoned, without always being able to tell the difference. The edges of the frames fill up matter-of-factly with off-key details that Phoenix may or may not be imagining. The result is a perfectly achieved subjectivism: a sense of solidity and realness even in the kookiest of scenarios.
But there is a lot of kookiness here, so much kookiness that even the most well disposed viewer will find their smiles freezing uncomfortably and their attention wandering after a while. To be fair, this is kind of the point. You’re supposed to wonder where all this high-grade frippery is finally leading. And the answer, in Pynchon, is always that it isn’t leading anywhere. All plots and all motives are finally fictions, designed to give a sense of depth and destiny to lives that can only be lived in the here and now.
This is a perfectly defensible moral and philosophical position – it is, in fact, a secular Manichaeism, where each moment is equally contested by forces of light and dark – but a world where every conclusion is forgone isn’t exactly great for drama. The stakes are always the same; it’s just a question of how soon you notice.
To give Anderson his due, he recognises this and goes with it. The last half hour of Inherent Vice (and the last scene in particular) is an accurate and even inspired rendering of the sort of existential chill that Pynchon – typically after hundreds of pages of wooziness – is so adept at producing.
I’m just not so sure how many people will go on that journey, given that it isn’t a journey at all. In addition to Pynchon’s epic perversities, you now have to add Anderson’s own. As in The Master, Anderson shoots with an incredibly flat 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a specification suited to grand panoramas in which every detail appears magically foregrounded. But Anderson shoots no panoramas, unless you count Joaquin Phoenix’s face as a panorama – which you might, if you were feeling generous. Scene after scene of Inherent Vice is just one talking head spouting amiable gibberish at another head. The sense of place and time, so delicately captured in the film’s opening stretch, completely disappears – or is relegated to the wigwork and the fetishized early-70s beachware.
The film’s title, incidentally, refers to a clause in maritime insurance whereby certain characteristics of ocean-going vessels are just written off, because they’re always going to go bad. ‘Inherent Vice’ is therefore a translation of one of the key terms in the Pynchon lexicon – ‘entropy’ – which can be defined either as the tendency of systems to gradually run into disorder, or the rate of decay of a signal after transmission. Inherent Vice is a perfect demonstration of both senses of the word.